My son, Case, turned 21 last Saturday and as his overbearing mother, I have incredibly mixed feelings about it, ranging from melancholy wistfulness to abundant pride. (Unbelievably, we both made it!) Regrettably, the years have flown by way too swiftly.
Sigh. Either he grew up too fast or I got old too soon!
As every parent discovers, raising children is a labor of love, but it also takes a tremendous leap of faith. AND like many journeys, it's full of surprises as well . . . . Having survived the roller coast called "adolescence," not to mention skinned knees, broken hearts and all manner of mood swings, it's a mystery to me why anyone willingly takes on the challenges parenthood invariably brings.
Nonetheless, we blindly go forth, happily unaware that parenting a child is both heart wrenching and all encompassing. Still, I'm convinced that our kids are the greatest gift we receive. (I'm not certain who teaches the other more!)
Not surprising, home ownership is a bit like that as well. It too, can be overwhelming, all encompassing, and very rewarding, but it's also a labor of love.
However, buying a home has one BIG advantage over parenthood: when it comes to Real Estate, there is typically MUCH MORE disclosure upfront! And that's a good thing - but it's not a perfect thing. Even in the best cases, DISCLOSURE isn't a perfect tool.
Disclosure is a pragmatic approach that allows consumers to make an informed choice, based on what they know to be true about the house in its present condition. The belief is that with clear facts in hand, Buyers can intelligently craft a purchase offer that makes good sense moving forward and eliminates nasty law suits down the road (a definite plus for both Buyers and Sellers).
Gone are the days of "Buyer Beware" when Sellers could pass off flaws and defects in the home without so much as a mention. The onus now sits squarely with the Seller to DISCLOSE what they know to be true about a home and its surrounding property prior to bringing it to market.
Sometimes this is easier said then done. I recently helped clients who had set their sights on a lovely home here in Oakland and as is customary, I asked for a "Disclosure Packet" to be promptly emailed to my office. Due to the bumpy economy, this home has previously sold two other times during the last decade and as a result, the disclosure packet consisted of both previous sets of disclosures as well as the current set. (Wow, that's a lot of disclosures. About the size of a phone book!)
With more than FIVE sets of pest reports, THREE home inspections, several differing foundation opinions, and an overabundance of Seller disclosures, it was nearly impossible to tell exactly what had, and what had NOT, been addressed in the home. In fact, it was so confusing, that the Buyers ultimately decided to pass on this unique opportunity altogether (an unsatisfactory result for everyone involved).
In this case, too much information created less clarity - not more. (Hint to the Sellers: if you find yourself in this unfortunate scenario, create a bullet point sheet that easily explains the improvements you have made to the home during your tenure.)
Moreover, neither Sellers nor Buyers are certified home inspectors, licensed engineers, or contractors and thus, don't or won't always recognize what might ultimately prove to be an impending problem with a house. While Sellers are required to reveal what is material fact about their home, they cannot see into the walls - or into the future - so they can't very well disclose what they don't know to be true.
For instance, a Seller can't know that the next big storm is going to knock down the majestic Oak out back, or create a pond on the patio (true story). Moreover, minor defects that have been acceptable to the Seller throughout the years, may easily be overlooked and therefore, failed to be mentioned at all. Hmmm . . . whatever the circumstances, the Buyers should have a very strong sense of what they ARE purchasing by virtue of the disclosure packet and the inspections readily available. And then they should conduct their own inspections as well!
Even so, it's unlikely that even the most informed Buyer will know everything there is to know about a house, regardless of how thorough the Sellers have been. To really know a home, requires time. It requires moving in and discovering that the stairs squeak on the third step, that the larks build a nest behind the porch light every Spring, or that your neighbor's sprinklers inconveniently run down your driveway. (Ugh!) It requires occupying the home to really know it - inside and out. So even with the inevitable surprises, would Cliff and I have still bought our current home? Yes, we would and we did, as well as several others along the way (and they all had "unknowns").
But when it comes to our kids, it's probably best NOT to know everything. The surprises (both good and bad) are all part of the journey and make love truly undefinable. Cheers to you son. I love you heart and soul (no matter what your disclosures). It's been a privilege.
Just when I think I have run out of things to say, I get an email from a friend like the one I received last week:
"Thank you for such a nice evening . . . while everyone may not have been as interested in the very clear nuances of TOAST, I would like to offer that we did not even delve into the logical extension of CROUTONS, proving I do have some restraint . . ."
Okay, that's just too good an opening line to pass up . . . .
Let me set the stage: I had invited a very small and impromptu gathering of friends over for dinner at my house a few weeks ago, which included my buddies, Devereuax and her husband Larry. Devereaux, has recently started a new jam business (Company Jam - delicious!) and had brought along a fresh jar of homemade blackberry as a hostess gift, which my husband promptly opened and started eating right out of the jar! (He does that.) Thus began the discussion of toast . . . .
"For me, it's practically a religious experience," another guest unapologetically exclaimed. "I start every morning with toast. It completes me!"
Forget politics, TOAST really makes for a lively debate!
Was one's preference for dark or for light toast? (Depends.)
What kind of bread makes the best toast? (Sourdough.)
Jam or jelly? (Definitely jam.)
And do English muffins qualify? (Mixed reviews. )
Then we moved onto toasters and toast racks (silly) and why they even exist??? Suffice it to say, that the topic of "toast" was exhaustively explored. And just for the record, we hadn't spoken about French toast either (although I do have strong opinions about it and even have a lovely recipe for it that involves JAM! You'll find it at the end of this column).
Who knew, I had invited a group of "toast aficionados" to my house?
Today's Sellers and Buyers are aficionados as well. More and more, they are so well versed on the topic of Real Estate, that one might wonder if they need a Realtor at all? (They do.) Could it be that with so much information now available online that Realtors are going the way of the Dodo bird or worse yet - the Travel Agent? (No, we're not.)
Why? Unlike travel, Real Estate can't effectively be purchased online. Without walking through the available inventory, exploring the spaces, mentally moving in your furniture, envisioning your life in the home, walking the neighborhood, and thoroughly understanding the nuances of the property, the consumer is at a real disadvantage. (I feel the same about booking vacations online. I MISS Travel Agents. Let's please bring them back.)
Moreover, guiding Sellers and Buyers through a very competitive marketplace, heated back and forth negotiations, and sometimes lengthy and complicated escrows, requires more than a basic license to practice Real Estate. Successful transactions require a deep understanding of the surrounding community, the current marketplace, and a proven track record.
More importantly, but far less obvious to the uninitiated Buyer or Seller is the fact that online agents don't have relationships with the other agents in their communities, don't penetrate the market in a meaningful way, have little if any presence, won't know the stories behind the pending sales, and will probably not be aware of homes that are available "off market" or coming soon (nor regrettably, do out-of-area agents). And that's not just a REAL disadvantage, it's often a FATAL one.
And while, there are discount real estate companies that offer their services for less than the standard fees, or alternatively, attract clients with the a promise of a rebate, it is important for the consumer to understand exactly what they are, and ARE NOT, getting with these online companies. If you choose this path because you believe there is a savings to your bottom line, let me assure you that you are more than likely TOAST! (This is the case with mortgage lenders as well. You NEED a personal relationship with your mortgage broker/banker.)
Which isn't to say that there are NO successful outcomes with a rebate Brokerage, an online house, or an out-of-area agent, but that in a competitive marketplace, you have undoubtedly reduced your chances considerably. And why, when better options exist? Since the fee is typically paid by the savvy Seller (and not the Buyer) why compromise your opportunities? Just as price and terms are going to be critical to the outcome of your offer, so too, is the representation you seek. (Btw - most reputable agents are happy to refer business and collect a hefty referral fee!)
While the C.A.R. license allows a Realtor to write on any listing in the state of California, it's hardly in your best interest. And as a seasoned agent, I am here to assure you that client referrals happen ALL THE TIME. (That isn't to say it doesn't sting, but that we've developed a pragmatic approach to it and rather tough skin.) Business is business.
Finally, whom you choose to work with, is entirely up to you (and should be). Just make sure that the decision is based on logic - not on misplaced loyalty or the desire to save a buck online (it isn't worth it). There are enough emotions that accompany a deal without making your choice of Realtor one of them. So work locally and save the toast for breakfast. You want to eat jam, not be in one!
BTW Miss D, we've finished the jar. Hint, hint, and thank you!
" . . . So um, wouldn't you know, of course I got a bunch more stitches, this time above my eye . . . then I went to my cousin's house and um, I tried to be a secret ninja warrior and BAM, another trip to the emergency room, another hospital, a cast on my arm, and a bunch more stitches . . . Um, my Doctor said to me, 'We have a very special relationship, kid . . .' So then I went back to school and then they didn't want to even let me on the playground . . ." "The end," I thought. It's not that I wasn't admiring this young camper's determination to get up in front of his peers and participate in the storytelling portion of the evening at Camp Augusta, it's just that his tale of woe should have ended about five minutes earlier and unfortunately, he'd come on the heels of several other very long stories. (The end.) He'd had some good laughs, a poignant memory or two (or three, or four) and more than a few probable punch lines. (The end!) But he had failed to recognize "the ending" to his amusing story and was now milking the indulgent crowd for far too long, until the restless audience politely clapped him off stage and, at long last, he finally exited. The end. (Camp counselors are very special and very patient people.)
I was a weekend guest at Camp Augusta, along with another member of the Board. We'd been invited to see the camp in action and "storytelling" was the assigned activity for the evening. Sadly for our children's generation, storytelling is an art form that's practically all but lost to Twitter and texting, so you gotta root for anyone with the nerve to string more than just a few sentences together (and in front of a live audience no less)! This loquacious and pedantic child definitely had guts (and a future as a politician I suppose). Still, there are some basic rules to public speaking that even young, enthusiastic campers (Um, make that everyone) should take heed and follow . . . .
"If you can't be funny, be brief," my husband pragmatically advises, having practiced in front of large groups of critical defense attorneys dozens of times all over the country (which is clearly no comedy gig). "Better yet, be both funny AND brief!" (Which explains why I write short essays, and not lengthy novels.) And even though he's no Dr. Phil, brevity with respect to public speaking, is a good rule of thumb to follow - no matter what your age. My boss, DJ, calls this the "elevator speech." Everyone has (or should have) the short story that clearly defines who they are in a few colorful sentences; the one you could literally deliver between floors while on an elevator if pressed. "So what do you do?" (Yes, I know human beings are more complicated than that, but for purposes of my "story," try to play along). So too, do houses . . .
All Realtors in essence, are storytellers. Whether composing a 30-word ad for the newspapers, or weaving stories at the Sunday Open about the property, the neighborhood, and the community, a gifted agent is typically selling more than just a house - they're selling a dream! (Call me corny, but it's true - "home ownership" remains the quintessential American Dream.) Thus, we need to convey more than just the bedroom and bathroom count when describing a home AND we need to speak to more than just the price. Because our interactions with Buyers and Sellers are often very brief, we need to get your attention and we need to do it quickly. And if we can bring some levity to the transaction and have a few laughs along the way, so much the better. (The end.)
"Dramatic, Mid-Century Modern with San Francisco Bay views" says something completely different than: "Historic Victorian with coveted central location" or than: "Diamond in the rough with original period details." (Sometimes I am tempted to write in "naughty pine" instead of "knotty pine" just to see if you're paying attention.) Each of these descriptions brings a completely different home to mind and that's my point. If we add: "near schools, parks, playing fields and the community pool," we start to fill in the background in a very different way than: "lush, expansive rural grounds and garden" OR: "urban oasis near restaurants, shops and BART." Get the picture? Good.
But if there's a longer story to tell, it's in the letters the Buyers write to the Sellers about how they envision their lives in the home and how much they love it, OR in the letters the Sellers write to the next owner about their Fourth of July celebrations, their daughter's garden wedding, or their children's birthday parties. Not that stitches and broken arms aren't dramatic stories to tell (they are) but it's the "slice-of- life" moments that cut straight to one's heart and prove to be the most compelling.
As your Realtor, it's my privilege to be the steward of your memories, and the witness to your hopes and desires. And when I get your stories just right, I also get to help you live out your dreams. Now that's a story worth telling.
Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 14 years and has published more than 500 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.